Film

Review: At Just 90 Minutes, Awake Rushes from a Solid Thriller to a Missed Narrative Opportunity

The latest from director Mark Raso (Kodachrome) is a science-fiction thriller with a promising concept and not nearly enough follow-through. Awake is about a world in which, one day, everything that operates on electricity dies, and then suddenly no human being can fall asleep (even people unconscious or in a coma wake up jarringly), with just a couple of exceptions, one of which is a young girl named Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of former soldier Jill (Gina Rodriguez). Because critical thinking vanishes in the human brain after just a couple of days of no sleep and pure insanity moves in shortly thereafter, the medical community (and many other desperate people) is incredibly interested in figuring out why certain people can sleep, meaning they’re eager to grab up and experiment on Matilda.

Awake

Image credit Peter H. Stranks/Netflix © 2021

The point of Awake is never really about figuring out what causes the global event (someone pins it down to a massive solar flare that disturbs the world’s electricity, including the human body’s internal workings); it’s meant to detail how rapidly society crumbles when there are no electronics and our brains don’t get the chance to reset every night. Jill works security at a hospital where she steals medications that she then sells to a drug dealer for much-needed cash to take care of Matilda and her teen son Noah (Lucius Hoyos). Her children barely tolerate her and live most of the time with their grandmother (Frances Fisher), who got custody of her late son’s children after Jill was deemed unfit for being a substance abuser. The backstory is important to understanding that trust does not exist between Jill and her kids, and she spends a great deal of the movie attempting to regain it so she can look out for them as they attempt to find safety in the midst of chaos.

When the power goes out, Jill and the kids are in a horrible car accident that nearly kills Matilda. They eventually end up at her mother-in-law’s church (led by a pastor played by Barry Pepper), and the desperate parishioners refuse to let Matilda go after they find out she can sleep. The pastor wants to question her to discover what makes her different, while most others in the church want to sacrifice her to end this curse because that’s what Christians do, apparently. Awake quickly becomes a road movie as Jill is able to get an older car (with no electronics) to work and they drive to a military medical installation where her former supervisor, Dr. Murphy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is leading a team looking for a cure. But the road to the base is littered with danger and surprises, including an escaped convict (Shamier Anderson), who attempts to help them, and roving bands of bad people with guns, who have either lost their minds or who simply see the end of the world coming and decide to wreak havoc because they can.

The ideas that kick off the film are solid and executed in a way that makes them feel plausible and fairly low key when things start going wrong. What’s missing in this admittedly tight, 90-some-minute film is the buildup. People do not go slowly insane. When I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I might be a little cranky in the morning. These people are batshit crazy almost immediately upon realizing that sleep is beyond their abilities, and that quick acceleration robs Awake of any dramatic slow-burn potential that would have given some of the characters a chance to go from likable and identifiable to slowly showing signs that something is wrong. As is, everyone goes from normal to twitchy and homicidal in 24 hours. With the pacing so badly off, there’s no opportunity to make an emotional connection with anyone outside of Jill.

By the time the action moves to the lab in the final act, Awake has gone from thriller to a showcase for actors acting like barely functioning lunatics. Apparently, everyone at the base is on a cocktail drug that helps keep them awake and relatively healthy, but even that is showing signs of being ineffectual. The secret to Matilda’s sleep patterns is somewhat obvious, and even figuring it out offers few reasons for celebration since it isn’t something that can be safely replicated for others’ benefit. So it’s a bit difficult to get excited in the end when the family figures it out. There’s something off about director Raso’s rushed approach to this story, and after a certain point, I lost a great deal of interest in the outcome of Awake, despite a dedicated performance by Rodriguez, whose range continues to impress as her filmography expands. Several interesting and disturbing ideas crop up in the telling of the story, but none of them truly pan out—a missed opportunity on several levels.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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